Whether you’re a fan of Final Fantasy, the Avengers, or anything steampunk, the concept of an airship is certainly a familiar trope in the fantasy world – it’s also a popular one. Epic battles in the sky, beautiful vistas on the horizon, and the power, respect, fear and prestige that all come with being a mighty sky-captain, all make for great adventures, but what really goes into including one in a D&D game?
Turns out, it can be a lot.
Including airships in a game can be a big deal. A ship needs layouts and similar planning to a small (or huge) dungeon but also has stats similar to a character. You, as a DM also need to ask things like how does combat between ships work? Or even combat on ships? then there’s also the question of how they fit into your lore – whether they’re common, or an everyday occurrence. My advice, as always, is to take it easy and remember that at the end of the day, the DM runs the rules as much as anything else.
There are plenty of resources to help you out with rules and ideas – From WotC themselves, we have Stormwrack – or as I like to call it, the Boat Bible, which covers everything to do with adventures on the high seas, most of which also apply well to the even higher skies. There’s also Spelljammer, which goes so far as to focus on D&D magical lore-friendly spaceships, though if you want to stay within the atmosphere, adjustments to the rules are quite simple. Once you’ve got enough of the rules down to feel ready to bring a flying boat into your game, You can start planning how they fit into your world.
Airships for everyone!…?
The presence of airships is a tricky thing. If they’re cheap and easy enough to build, it could invalidate the existence of every normal, non-flying ship in your game. Worse, it could lead to your party getting their hands on one before you’re ready, circumventing any ground-travel based adventures or hooks you may have planned. On the other hand, if your “Big Bad” has one, they may not be as intimidating when the local kingdom has an armada of hundreds of them. (Unless the local kingdom is the “Big Bad”, always a possibility.)
The balance of power isn’t the only consideration when wondering how prevalent these flying fortresses (or floating frigates… ballooning battleships?) are in your world – it also speaks to the level of technological or magical advancement. One flying ship that’s a revolution can be a great symbol of growth or progress, while tower-high traffic jams can make the world around your players feel busy, crowded, and more populated. How common airships are will also inform how ready the world around them is. If they’re common, most fortresses will have docking towers and aerial defences of some sort. If they’re rare, it may be difficult to acquire whatever fuel your ships end up running off, which can be a useful plot hook, but also make your players appreciate the power and value of their ship a bit more, especially when they completely bypass an enemy’s ground defences with one.
Once you’ve got a handle on how they fit into your world, The next question is, how do they fit into your story?
Airships are a big deal.
Building an airship can be a great hook for a series of quests, especially if the ship will use any rare materials. (The Arms and Equipment Guide has a few, anything that works for armour can work for a hull). This is especially rewarding if the players get to build their own ship, and reap the rewards of their efforts.
On the other hand, a strong supporting character could have some quests for the players that they might be willing to give them a ride to complete. An airship is a strong symbol of power for a military leader, an evil overlord, or a charismatic rebel. The story of Arcanum starts with an airship being shot down, and the final battle of Final Fantasy X happened on the deck of an ugly flying monstrosity.
Using an airship as a story hook, or for dramatic effect, can be a powerful tool indeed. Just make sure it doesn’t look like a pink ice-skate turned upside-down, as that would completely distract from one of the meatiest, and most important parts of D&D:
The epic battles.
When it comes down to it, all the epic story in a D&D game is largely just build-up to the epic battles. Splinters flying through the air as cannon fire tears chunks out of the only thing keeping you from plummeting out of the sky, enemies firing crossbows and fireball spells at you from the other ship as you scramble to find cover, fire back, and get your barbarian over there so he can tear into the other crew. When it comes down to it, as fancy, dramatic, and awe-inspiring as an adventure in the skies can be, the fights are where these dynamic dirigibles really bring a game to life. Just remember to be careful not to overwhelm your players with too much going on, unless that’s how they like it, of course. From swinging from the sails across the ships to the satisfaction of hitting a group of enemies with the biggest siege weapon they could stick on the ship (See: Dragonator, Earth Elemental Cannon, Dakka), the possibilities for your players to have fun fighting on an airship are endless.
Bonus points to the swashbuckler who gets into a swordfight on top of the mast.
Got any great air(or water-)ship stories or designs? Do share.